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Friday, December 26, 1997 Published at 07:19 GMT

World: Americas

Zapatistas blame Mexican President for massacre
image: [ Women hold a Christmas Day vigil for the 12 children who were killed in the massacre ]
Women hold a Christmas Day vigil for the 12 children who were killed in the massacre

The Zapatista rebel leader, Subcomandante Marcos, has blamed the Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo, for the massacre of at least 45 indigenous Indians in the southern state of Chiapas.

In a statement, Subcomandante Marcos said the President had allowed pro-government paramilitaries to move into Chiapas two years ago and to kill with impunity.

President Zedillo has yet to respond to the accusation, but earlier in the week he condemned the massacre as "cruel, absurd, unacceptable" and vowed that the killers would be tracked down.

At least four suspects are now in police custody. The security forces are continuing to comb the scene of the massacre amid fears that further bodies may yet be found.

BBC correspondent Emma Patterson: concern that this may provoke a response (2'22")
The village where the killings took place is now surrounded by security forces, with local authorities determined to ensure at least a temporary halt in the violence.

The massacre on Monday was the worst in a series of recent attacks against Zapatista sympathisers who have challenged government party rule in Chiapas. It happened in the town of Chenalho, a stronghold of the Zapatista rebel movement, in the northeast of the state.

Officials said 45 defenceless refugees, 39 of them women and children were shot and beaten to death, and at least 25 were injured.

Some reports say the victims were supporters of the Zapatista rebels, who staged a revolt four years ago in protest against poor living conditions and alleged exploitation by landowners.

[ image: The dead are laid to rest]
The dead are laid to rest
Pro-government paramilitaries have carried out a series of attacks in the past in an effort to wipe out the Zapatistas, who are demanding better living conditions for Mexican Indians. The paramilitaries see the rebels as a threat to the interests of powerful landowners and have become increasingly active during the past year.

The attack is thought to be the bloodiest event in the reign of violence in Chiapas where an estimated 500 civilians have been killed in political disputes in the past four years.

Witnesses said the gunmen entered the town late on Monday and fired their automatic weapons indiscriminately for several hours. One report says the attack happened as local people were holding a Christmas party. A local church leader said many of the victims had taken refuge in the town a few days earlier after being forced to flee their homes.

Mourners attend Christmas Day Mass

Families of the victims received the bodies of their loved ones during a Christmas Mass.

Among the dead were 12 children whose blood-stained coffins were covered in white satin and carried by Indian women and youngsters.

"I have never before assisted at a Christmas Mass with 45 people dead," said the Reverend Oscar Salinas, who conducted the service. "These are people of strong spirit who live on the margins of violence, you could say it was a situation of martyrdom."

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